Flag Day (2021)

SEAN PENN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB

USA//, 2021. , , , , . Screenplay by , , based on the book Flim-Flam Man by . Cinematography by . Produced by , , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , .

Journalist and author Jennifer Vogel’s memoir of living with, loving and eventually forgiving her troubled career criminal father John is turned into a shallow, indulgent biopic by , who directs and stars alongside his real-life children. Vogel’s parents (her mother Patty played by ) divorced when she was young, resulting in her and her brother Nick living with their despondent mother’s alcoholism and neglect until deciding to go live with their father and his new girlfriend ().

That doesn’t last long, by which point we flash forward to teenage years where Jennifer (now played by ) and Nick () live with their mother and stepfather Doc () but, because no good stepparent will ever make their way into a movie, he can’t keep his hands off the young girl and so she runs. Her breaking away from her mother, who refuses to see the truth about her flawed marriage because she’s taken to Alcoholics Anonymous with blinded, religious zealotry, would play a whole heck of a lot better if anyone had thought to age Winnick enough to credibly be the mother of Dylan Penn, who at 30 does not for half a second convince you she is a teenager (nor does her brother, and director Penn doesn’t fare much better, his attempts to recreate youth by putting what looks like magic marker goatees on his face in the earlier scenes backfires quite noticeably).

Jennifer decides to try living with her dad once again and, this time, makes a temporary success of things, even convincing him to work a proper day job while she also does the same, keeping house and home together until the fire gets lit up inside him and he robs a bank, going to prison for a couple of decades while she hits the road. Living a life scattered across the country, sleeping in doorways and hitching rides, Jennifer eventually decides to pursue an education in journalism and begins working in that field, at which point her father finds her again and she has one last opportunity to put him on the straight and narrow.

It hasn’t been an easy road for the film’s subject to travel, having a genuine bond with a parent is much more complicated when they can’t stay on the right side of the law, for you or for themselves, but whatever personal struggle the main character is going through is not at all of concern to either of the Penns, who present Jennifer’s struggle as one of either quiet, dignified restraint or uncontrolled, shrieking fury.

The performances aren’t unappealing, mind you, and while Penn’s direction is tonally all over the map we do get a sympathetic feeling for everyone involved. The problem is that we shouldn’t just want to be politely involved with these people, we should want to care deeply about them, but whenever the story requires us to really mine Jennifer’s personal experience, we got a montage instead and, by the time we reach the end, the unnecessary razzle-dazzle of the overdetermined visuals has exhausted all possibility of emotional resonance.

Cannes Film Festival: In Competition

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